Paul Giamatti still isn't sure if he got "John Adams" right
Moviegoers in New York and Los Angeles -- and more importantly SAG and Academy members -- have a one week shot at catching the new drama "Barney's Version." The Sony Classics release is playing for a one week Academy Awards qualifying run after which it will reopen in January. Following the memorable life of a fictional Canadian TV producer, Barney Panofsky, the picture features a great cast including Rosamund Pike, Scott Speedman, Dustin Hoffman, Minnie Driver, Rachelle Lefevre and Paul Giamtti as the Barney in question. I spoke to Giamatti a few weeks ago and our conversation covered a number of topics including his acclaimed role as the nation's second President in "John Adams" and his upcoming Curtis Hanson HBO movie "Too Big To Fail."
How difficult was it to tackle yet another project where you’re playing a character who progresses in age over such a long period of time, or was that the most challenging of it to you?
Giamatti: It was kind of the most challenging and interesting part of it to me and it was nice to actually get a second chance to do it. That doesn’t come along a whole lot. So, part of me was looking forward to getting another shot at doing it and trying to do it better than I’d done it the first time. Hopefully better than I’d done it the first time. So it was part of the appeal in it. I mean not just as an acting cast but I liked the idea of the scope of seeing this guy get old. I mean it’s something poignant about watching somebody get old.
Do you watch your performances?
Giamatti: You have to sometimes. I mean, not have to, but I go to premieres. Not that I watch. I will watch them once at least.
Something tells me you're overly critical of yourself.
Giamatti: Oh, yes. I watch some performances in particular and go, "That wasn’t right and I could have done a lot of things better in it," but particularly that one because there’s so much of it I think. So, much of it that I can only sit there and judge the [expletive] out of it. But, I mean, that was a mammoth thing for everybody and the fact that it came off as well as it did is kind of amazing. But, it wasn’t even necessarily that "Oh, I was too young there." I feel like I got the progression of the age right. I just don’t know how convincing some of it was at times. I think sometimes I fell into traps of sort of playing him old and things like that that I hope I didn’t repeat in this.
I don’t know how many months “John Adams” was, but in terms of "Barney's Version" this was what? A two-month shoot at best?
Is it sometimes easier to have less time to shoot than an extended period like "Adams?"
Giamatti: Probably, yes. Well, I don’t know…both yes and no. The major thing with “Adams” was what’s the breadth of time allowed me to really relax and almost probably get too relaxed in playing it. By the end of that thing, which was mostly me playing him when he was old, there was this weird sort of fond memory I had about all these characters, you know? Just weird recreations of being this guy who could think back and go, "Wow. I remember way back when and I knew when my kids were little kids." It was very weird the way like, suddenly those kids weren’t little kids anymore . They were these adult actors. I remember that actually we had to shoot a scene when I saw my adult children for the first time after years and they had become adults. And it was the first time I saw the adults that were playing these kids. I’d gotten used to these child actors. So, it was incredibly weird to actually come into the scene for the first time to meet the people playing them as adults. So we had this odd sense of recreating the actual experience of it. And [for "Barney's Version"] probably the speed of it was a little bit easier in some [aspects].
Did it help in "Barney's" that your main co-star, Rosamund Pike, also was aging across a number of decades?
Giamatti: Yeah, I mean it was very cool to be able to see her age. I would forget sometimes I had my makeup on, but I could see hers. And so yeah, it was actually…it’s very cool to do all that.
What was it like working with Dustin Hoffman? He’s playing your father, which would be…
Giamatti: Which is nice, yeah. Yeah, he’s a really sweet man. [Plus,] his son is in the movie. His son plays my son.
Giamatti: They look exactly alike. They have the same voice and everything. If you actually are aware of it, all of a sudden you see how very similar they actually are. And, so I got to see him be with his own son and be sort of very paternal with own kid, which was nice you know? But he’s great. I can’t even begin to tell you what he brings to the scene. I mean he completely turns the thing into a circus for awhile, which is great. And then he pulls it all together again and you’ve gone somewhere you didn’t even know you were going to go with the guy in the scene, so it’s great.
You play U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke in the new Curtis Hanson film "To Big To Fail," which was another real person. Some actors fear playing real life characters. They don’t really want to if they don’t have to. Does it even enter your mind when a role comes your way?
Giamatti: Actually I found [Bernanke] harder than most. I mean a lot of the real life people I’ve played, nobody knows who they are -- they’re long dead or whatever. But this guy was hard because he is so present. I mean he’s in the newspaper every day. And I was really wary of it just becoming a caricature of him more than anything, you know? It’s a challenge to try to walk the line of trying to get as much of the essence of the guy out there without it being an imitation and still making it a character and using your own imagination and stuff.
When making a film like that, is it hard to not to become obsessed with like everything that happened. I don’t know if you saw the documentary “Inside Job" which covers the subject matter in incredible detail.
Giamatti: No, I didn’t see “Inside Job.” That’s the endless amounts of information about it and it may be too soon to really know everything about it, too. And the expense at which you could just keep getting sucked into this black hole of data is challenging. And for me personally, I do have to cut myself off at a certain point. I mean, William Hurt plays Henry Paulson, because really the movie’s about Paulson and he’s endlessly researching it in a way that I couldn’t. I couldn’t handle all that information. It wouldn’t be helpful to me actually. I’d get too tangled up in it. I know my limitations as an actor and how much I can actually know. I mean when I did the “John Adams” thing, at a certain point I was like, "I have to stop now because I can’t keep doing this. I won’t be able to function. It’s too much information."
Actually if you’d watched “Inside Job” beforehand it might have skewed your performance the wrong way.
Giamatti: That’s the thing. You’re really tricky but you have to have a point of view. Well, the script does kind of need to have a point of view.
Does the script's Bernanke have tunnel vision and isn't seeing everything going around him or is he more…?
Giamatti: There’s a bit of tunnel vision to him. I fear that this stuff is too recent to really be able to parse out exactly what the hell was going on with these guys. You know, he’s portrayed in this and he’s portrayed in the book ["Too Big to Fail: The Inside Story of How Wall Street and Washington Fought to Save the Financial System---and Themselves" by Andrew Ross Sorkin] as fairly reasonable in trying to be fairly balanced. You can go any number of ways with it. I think it’s fairly cautious the way he’s portrayed in this because in a lot of ways he was drawn into this more, from what I gather. I mean the Fed really was not supposed to be part of any of this.
Giamatti: So, it’s more of a process of him…you see this guy get reluctantly drawn into this thing that he just doesn’t feel he’s going to be a part of.
The question is whether Paulson actually really screwed up or did he not screw up?
Giamatti: …or not screw up? Well, but again it’s too…I mean even right now with what Bernanke just did, it’s easy to say it’s a [expletive] maniacal thing that he just did. He is truly thinking long-term. He’s a fearist and I think he’s thinking larger picture.
It’s interesting. I have not read the book, but I would say to you either in the theatre when they send screeners, you really should see “Inside Job” because…
Giamatti: Everybody kept saying to me, you have to see it. But the thing is I think I can’t see it will weigh too much. I will sit here and say, "I can’t see this movie" So, it’s really a politically compromising thing in a funny way, which is why it’s difficult to do these movies.
But that’s why I’m assuming you love it. That’s the challenge.
Giamatti: Yeah, it is the challenge but only when it becomes this fucking hall of (inaudible) you know what I mean? Like Jesus Christ, if I don’t do this I haven’t told the story right in this way. Really hard to do these things. Even the “John Adams” thing, like that was hard. It was 200 [expletive] years ago and you still are like, "If I don’t bring out this aspect of it, I’m cheating this aspect of it and I’m going to piss off this wing of the Republican party because I didn’t do this. Or I’m going to piss off these fiscal Conservative Democrats because...you know what I mean? It’s like you can’t win with this kind of stuff.
"Barney's Version" is currently playing in New York and Los Angeles until Thursday. It will reopen on Jan. 14 and then expand around the country.